For some, it's an itchy mouth, nausea, diarrhea or a runny nose. For others, it's shortness of breath, a drop in blood pressure or even a loss of consciousness. For me, it's the swelling of my tongue and throat when I eat tree nuts. So what exactly is a food allergy?

For some, it's an itchy mouth, nausea, diarrhea or a runny nose. For others, it's shortness of breath, a drop in blood pressure or even a loss of consciousness. For me, it's the swelling of my tongue and throat when I eat tree nuts.


The symptoms of an allergic reaction vary and can range from mild to severe, but one thing is for sure, the number of Americans, especially children, with food allergies is on the rise.


A recent study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University and published in Pediatrics, found that nearly one in 13, or 8 percent, of U.S. children have a food allergy. This number is double the 4 percent of allergies estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Combined, food allergies cause 30,000 cases of anaphylaxis, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths annually, according to the CDC.


The most important thing you can do when faced with your own allergy or a loved one's allergy is to educate yourself. I am in a career that allowed me to become educated on my own allergy, but others may need a little help.


So what exactly is a food allergy?


According to Food Allergy Initiative, a food allergy results when the immune system mistakenly targets harmless food protein as a threat and attacks it.


Food allergies are not picky; they can affect children and adults of all races and ethnicity.


An allergist will perform skin or blood tests to verify which foods are causing the allergy.


There's no cure for food allergies. The most important measure to prevent serious health consequences is strict avoidance of the allergens.


Ninety percent of all reactions are caused by one of the following eight allergens:




Cow's milk

Eggs

Peanuts

Tree nuts

Fish

Shellfish

Wheat

Soy

As is true in all aspects of health care, you must be your own advocate. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network provides helpful guidelines and ideas for parents of children with allergies on their website.


Parents must learn how to read food labels and look for key words, for example if a child has a milk allergy, look on the ingredients list for words like whey, casein or ghee.


Also, do not be afraid to discuss your child's needs with his or her school or daycare provider and friends and family. I still do this for myself.


When a co-worker threw me a potluck baby shower recently, she asked to be reminded which nuts needed to be avoided and then posted, "No walnuts, pecans or almonds," on the food sign-up list to remind my other co-workers as well.


Child or adult, it's important to share your allergy concerns to ensure all measures are in place not only to prevent but also to treat an allergic reaction.


Emily Bailey, RD, LDN, is a clinical dietitian with Memorial Medical Center.